antinormanybody. Curated by Barrak Alzaid. Organized with the support of Kleio Projects & International Resource Network.
June 23 – August 10, 2011.
Kleio Projects: 153½ Stanton Street, New York, NY.
I wandered the Lower East Side on a sweaty summer morning in search of Kleio Projects Gallery, curiously located on 153 and a half Stanton Street, feeling like a young Harry Potter on his first visit to King’s Cross Station, trying to find the peculiarly titled Platform 9 3/4. I entered the small, conspicuous gallery after spotting it, feeling disoriented from the heat. I tried to forget about my own uncomfortable body and to take stock of the portraits, both still and moving, that hung on the walls in unconventional “frames.” Together they comprise antinormanybody, an experimental video and portraiture exhibition curated by ArteEast Artistic Director Barrak Alzaid, which groups together portraits and video installations by Middle Eastern artists that explore alternative representations of the human body.
A large screen was draped along the front window, and across from it on the far end of the gallery stood a small television set. Flat screens were plastered across the walls and wires webbed along the gallery floor. My first reaction was that the architecture of the exhibition itself serves as a visual commentary on the role of technology in transforming art, and on the way in which art simultaneously can be used to re-conceptualize technology, pushing it beyond the limits of its conventional uses.
To my left hung a small, flat screen TV playing Negar Behbahani’s Every Night Three Kisses. In this six-minute video, a young woman reflects on an unfulfilling sexual relationship with a young male lover. The video moves slowly, lingering over images of undergarments strung up to dry, and two lovers repeatedly embracing and turning away from one another beneath the web of clotheslines. The images are punctuated with the soft sound of dripping water and the poetic tone of the narrator. Together they form an almost palpable sensuality that engulfs video and viewer. Juxtaposed with the narrator’s lyrical way of speaking are the cold, biological terms she uses to describe her relationship. Through her elongated and almost song-like descriptions of bodily fluids and bed stains, the narrator balances the sensual environment her tone and images create with a description of sex as a mechanical, unsatisfying act.
Behbahani presents the viewer with an ordinary relationship in which one lover has become dissatisfied with the other. While one can presume that the characters are Iranian because the video is narrated in Persian, Behbahani refrains from providing the viewer with any “cultural tropes” through which to define the bodies as stereotypically Iranian or Muslim. The narrator portrays both the sexual act and the experience of being sexually insatiable as unsurprising occurrences within her life. Images of hanging lingerie appear repeatedly, as if to undermine the notion that only veils could occupy a Muslim woman’s wardrobe, or the supposition that wearing modest dress in public implies an asexuality on the part of a Middle Eastern woman in the home. Instead of giving a Western audience what it might expect from picking up a set of headphones linked into a Middle Eastern woman’s stream of consciousness, Behbahani presents a culturally and religiously ambiguous woman engaged with a seemingly banal personal problem. Her video asserts the narrator’s right to be something more than “other,” more than a cause to be pitied or contrasted with one’s own, more “preferable” socio-cultural circumstances in the West. It pushes against established limits within the Western imagination of the Middle Eastern body and the ways in which it can perform.
Playing on an identical flat screen next to Behbahani’s piece was Marwa Arsanios’ five-minute video, I’ve Heard Stories. The video combines two-dimensional animation with live-action footage to imagine multiple ways of narrating several murders of victims who were rumored to be homosexual that took place at the Hotel Carlton in Beirut between 1973 and 1993. Among the individuals the video alludes to is the influential Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharaoun, who was killed in the Hotel in 1993 and who, again according to rumor, was possibly the victim of a male lover. The video focuses on the fictional character Nora, a dancer and possibly a prostitute, who hears the crime from an adjacent room. The fast-paced scenes oscillate between images of the abandoned hotel in the present, and animated sketches drawn from the bountiful rumors about the hotel’s past and the individuals who occupied it. It is punctuated with bursts of Haddaway’s song “What is Love?” of A Night at the Roxbury fame.
Through flashes of narrative text, an invisible audience debates the crime and comments on Nora’s testimony. This ambiguous crowd seems more preoccupied with the bodies involved in the crime than with the act of murder itself. The video highlights the ways in which rumor and gossip function as “othering” mechanisms in Lebanon. It emphasizes the ways in which the multi-layered fragmentation of Lebanese society both enables and is preserved through this tendency to distance oneself from the lives and tragedies of others by treating them as sources of entertainment or alien experiences to be coldly judged and commented upon. An image from an old newspaper clipping flashes on the screen and reads: “He was not the first victim of darkness.” It appears as though the murdered man — or men (the figures are unspecific enough for one to assume Arsanios is tackling the multiple murders simultaneously) — is not perceived as a victim of murder by the invisible audience but as a victim of his own “inappropriate” lifestyle. Similarly, this audience doesn’t take Nora seriously as a witness because she is engaged in a “crass” profession. The audience is more interested in watching her dance, as it repeatedly commands her to do, than in listening to her testimony.
Lebanon is a country of minorities with no clear, sectarian majority. The implication of this make-up is that every Lebanese citizen, given his or her location — physical or social — at a given point in time, depending on who he/she is conversing with, working alongside, and so on, can find him or herself marginalized politically, socio-culturally, or economically. Arsanios, in my reading, highlights this cycle of marginalization. There are practices and habits in place, such as gossip/rumor, or latlateh as it is popularly known in Lebanon, that individuals are engaged in which perpetuate the fragmentation of society, and which prevent many from empathizing with individuals from other “minorities,” be they sectarian, sexual, gender, or economic. Reactions to the tragic murders at the Carlton serve as an unsettling reminder of this tendency.
Towards the far end of the gallery, there were two works by Mirak Jamal. In Running Man, a four-part video installation, Jamal pays homage to his childhood by performing the popular 1980’s dance move, the Running Man, in various locations. Anchoring three staged interventions is a home video from the early 1990’s that shows Jamal as a child gathered with friends in his basement in Cologne, Germany, doing the “running man.” Jamal re-enacts this memory of bygone days in and around locations and monuments teaming with history, whose architecture serves as a visual manifestation of things past: the run down Iraqi embassy in the former East German Republic, a statue of Marx and Engels in Berlin.
Jamal’s performance of a childhood pastime in various stages of adulthood against such physical backdrops is a thought-provoking meditation on temporality and its relationship with the body and memory. In presenting the viewer with a character that repeatedly appears both new in his appearance and familiar in his gestures and movements, Jamal pushes us to reflect on how our bodies act as repositories of our pasts, holding the sediments of the habits and sensibilities we have collected. At the same time, he encourages us to think about the body’s fluidity, how it reacts to changing contexts and remolds itself through such interactions, and how such responses are mediated by the memories, not only cerebral but physical and habitual, that sit in and are constantly re-performed by the body. Jamal’s Running Man enables us to contemplate the intimate relationship between our past, the way we live in the present, and the kinds of futures we are capable of imagining and working towards.
Complementing Running Man are two portraits of Jamal’s parents entitled In the Valley. From afar, the two portraits appear to be black-and-white photos of each parent with text printed on them. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the faint shade of the opposite parent in the background of each picture, creating a disjointed, mirroring effect. What at first appears as a nonsensical text turns out to be a poem stretching across and joining both portraits; it reads: “in the valley, where time is forgiving, space encompassing.” These two portraits, in which the faces and gestures of Jamal’s parents blend into one another, reflect the specificity of memories, the ways in which they are colored by positionality, nostalgia, gaps, and affect. Rather than presenting us with an “accurate” or “life-like” representation of his parents, Jamal presents them as they manifest themselves in his particular imagination, as two bodies that cannot be completely distinguished from one another, that melt into the space of the familial and that are frozen in a unique moment in time.
Across the room from Jamal’s home video was a large screen playing Raed Yassin’s video Final Destination. In this self-portrait, we watch as Yassin edges towards the Mediterranean Sea and becomes gradually engulfed within the pixilated waves. The image moves at a painfully slow pace, at times seeming completely still. I felt calm staring at the serene image of the sea and simultaneously unsettled by the slow, lethargic movement of the video and the purposeful blurriness of the image. Yassin completely bypasses cognition and communicates directly with the viewer’s viscera, drawing him/her into the serenity of the waves at first and then making him/her feel impatient, irritated by the slowness, anxious for the video to speed up.
In a sense, Yassin’s work shows us that to be a modern subject is also to be an impatient subject. Modernity is typically associated with a progressive march forward, with constant movement, ascension, speed, etc. Yassin’s work highlights what we lose as a result of our impatience, our need to keep our bodies moving, and our desire for quick results, for clarity that flashes before us as opposed to blurriness that we must scrutinize. Standing still, watching Yassin slowly dive into the sea, one is reacquainted with the value of calm, still reflection, with the benefit of standing in one place, without the white noise that surrounds us daily, without a purpose or end goal. He reminds us what it’s like to be contemplative, to just experience the body and all of its extremities motionlessly.
On the wall opposite Behbahani’s piece hung Monira Al Qadiri’s self-portrait, The Tragedy of Self (series 3). The hexagon-shaped portrait is composed of a series of photographs of the artist. Examining the androgynous look of the figures, pale-skinned, sporting beards and lipstick, adorned in black veils, I was immediately transported back to Qajar Iran and the gender ambiguity characteristic of its art. This is the same milieu explored by Afsaneh Najmabadi in her historical work Women with Moustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity: the similarities between conceptions of male and female beauty in Qajar Iran. Najmabadi analyzes portraits of lovers in which gender is not easily distinguishable, displaying women with think eyebrows and light moustaches, and young beardless men with small waists and soft features. Najmabadi also explores the particular sexual sensibility of the time, during which same-sex relations between men were commonplace. It was through the interaction with Europe in the nineteenth century, she shows, that conceptions of beauty in Iran began to change and the dichotomy between homosexuality and heterosexuality began to sediment. Al Qadiri’s work speaks to this Middle Eastern tradition of gender and sexual fluidity, making visual a history colored with rich conceptions of beauty that are not easily distinguishable on the basis of gender. In reflecting this tradition, the piece disrupts the popular assumption that the Middle East is and always has been a place of clearly demarcated gender roles and deeply-seated homophobia.
As I took a quick look around the room one last time, I noticed a small screen I had neglected, tucked into the back corner of the gallery. There I found Fatima Al Qadiri and Lyndsy Welgos` piece Yelwa, a five-minute video that curator Barrak Alzaid describes as "a meditation on ceremonial language." The video constitutes a re-imagining of the traditional Kuwaiti wedding ritual after which it is named. Two men sit facing one another. One is shrouded in a white veil, head bowed, while the other recites from a book. They are encircled by a group of men dressed in the traditional Kuwaiti white thawb, who repeatedly raise and lower a blanket over their heads. The two seated men, one platinum blond and pale and the other dressed in beige khakis and a light blue collared shirt, seem peculiarly out of place in this traditional Kuwaiti ceremony, sparking the viewer`s curiosity. Watching this video, I was drawn into its repetitiveness, the softness of the movements and the eerily hypnotic background noise. According to Alzaid, in recasting the traditional roles in the wedding ceremony — which is usually performed by women and normally serves as a kind of bridal shower — Welgos and Al Qadiri "disrupt social norms." The "measured pace of the yelwa," he continues, "belies the subversion of customary gender and social roles."
Collectively, the works in antionormanybody challenge many of the normative assumptions that coalesce to form an image of “the Arab” and “the Muslim” in the Western imagination. The pieces also work together to elucidate the centrality of the body within processes of subject formation, as the medium through which we perform the everyday practices and interact with the environments that make us who we are. Together, they present the body as a site that harbors the habituated, physical memories and cultivated dispositions and gestures of our past, which blend with our present contexts and shape the course of our future transformations.